IF ANYONE expected Scott Johnson to take the easy option and keep everyone sweet in his final few matches as Scotland’s interim head coach, they received a shock with his team to face England tomorrow.
The coach will step down at the end of the RBS Six Nations Championship and hand the reins to Vern Cotter but, in dropping his skipper Kelly Brown in order to hand a Test debut to Chris Fusaro, he is attempting to leave Cotter with a stronger squad. After telling Fusaro just three months ago that he was not yet ready for the Test team, and had areas to work on, he feels now is the right time, impressed by the 24-year-old’s work to tackle those weaknesses.
Amid all the sympathy and headlines generated by Brown’s ejection, however, is a key desire in Johnson to find a slicker and more creative blend in Scotland’s back row.
Few could argue that that is not required by a Scotland side who work tirelessly but continue to flatter to deceive.
Asked why Brown was considered a virtual certainty in Scotland’s back row, and whether it was fair that he had lost his place after agreeing to Johnson’s request to shift to an unfamiliar openside role, the coach batted pretty straight.
“A couple of years ago I was good looking,” he said, which must be debatable. “Time moves on and the game changes. If you look at the back row and the young guys coming through it’s my job to have a look at what’s behind and make decisions for the interest of Scotland.
“We’ve got some athletic players. Ryan Wilson wasn’t in that group [in 2012] and we’ve got a couple more who will be available come the World Cup too who are not on our list at the moment, so we’re going to have competition for that six/eight spot like never before.
“Kelly is not a big ball-carrier or an explosive type of player. He isn’t that type. He isn’t a dominant lineout player. He has a prodigious workrate and so his skill-set moves to the other side on the six and eight. I like fast and explosive six and eights. I won’t run away from that or the fact that the country needs that. All successful teams appear to have that.
“Kelly’s skill-set is leaning now more towards that [openside flanker] at this period, and I won’t run away from the fact that he’s been told that. Is it unfair? I didn’t make the decisions previously when that occurred [Brown played at blindside and No 8] but if I had, I probably would have argued the same then and said he was better suited to the other side at international rugby. As it stands we’re starting to get some depth at six and eight, with players I believe can turn games.”
While the focus is on the current championship, and a desire to right the ship in tomorrow’s Calcutta Cup clash of two sides that lost on the opening weekend, there is no doubt that Johnson and Cotter have been planning the shape of Scotland’s squad for 2014-15, leading up to the Rugby World Cup, and the back row is one area of the team with burgeoning competition.
Involved tomorrow alongside Fusaro, David Denton, Wilson and Johnnie Beattie are out-of-favour Alasdair Strokosch, John Barclay and Rob Harley, Ross Rennie, who is returning from injury, highly-rated youngsters Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury and Tommy Spinks, and London Irish newcomers Kieran Low and Blair Cowan.
On top of that, Edinburgh’s Cornell du Preez, Josh Strauss at Glasgow and Scots-qualified Otago flanker John Hardie are all in the sights of the Scotland coaches for 2015. Rennie is not only dealing with regaining match fitness after his latest series of injuries, but also the loss of his mother, and he has moved out of the spotlight by switching from Edinburgh to Bristol.
John Barclay falls into a similar category to Brown and Roddy Grant in that Johnson feels he knows what they can bring, which is why he has opted for Fusaro this week – to find out about the Fife talent under Test pressures.
What Johnson would give for that kind of depth in his front five. He admitted that there could have been more changes made to the side that faltered in Ireland, but players such as hooker Ross Ford and lock Jim Hamilton appear to have escaped the axe as much due to the lack of serious rivals as their own performances.
The scrum and lineout were key failings in Sunday’s match against Ireland, leading directly to Scotland conceding points and squandering good scoring opportunities. A lineout loss also led to Sean Maitland being knocked out chasing an Ireland clearance.
But, as one of the strongest- ever players in the Scotland squad, in terms of modern analysis, at least, Ford brings so much to the scrummaging power of the team. Asked specifically about why the hooker was leaving the ball in the tunnel at most scrums, and not hooking it, Johnson explained that this was the coaches’ call, as every time he did attempt to hook the ball, under the new rules the opposition pack were steamrollering Scotland back off it.
When he scrummages, the Scottish scrum is solid – even dominant – but the selection of Scott Lawson instead of Pat MacArthur on the bench has been made with the intention of bringing a different hooking option into play this weekend.
The lineout is Hamilton’s chief responsibility so he shoulders as much of the blame for Sunday’s “shambles”, to use the word of his forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, as Ford. Some of the hooker’s throws were spot on but there was no player in the air to receive the ball, allowing Ireland to say “thanks very much”.
However, Hamilton’s high work-rate and efficiency in other areas, revealed in the match analysis, combined with the fact that neither Tim Swinson or Richie Gray can call lineouts, Al Kellock is injured and Jonny Gray is still learning that art, has provided Hamilton with another chance to drive to a Scottish win.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t discuss it,” said Johnson. “We thought long and hard about game one, the fact that we had a short turnaround and so you need some consistency, but we’ve got to be honest – some standards in Dublin slipped. There’s no hiding from that.
“It isn’t to say these players are untouchable and we’re being honest in that… but the front row and scrummaging isn’t just the hooker, and neither is the lineout just the hooker. It’s a combination of a lot of things.
“It’s not easy coaching a country like this where lots of players are not jumping out at you, but it is what it is and I’m not going to sit there and tell kids that they can’t do it. They can do it and they have to learn how to do it more consistently.
“There were parts of that game at the weekend, as I’ve said, that we were really happy with, but we just weren’t consistent enough.”
The elder Gray, still just 24, is back in France at Castres with the stark message that his brother is currently producing more quality and quantity. It has been a week for straight-talking in the Scotland camp.
As the mist clears the question now is what difference that will make to a squad seeking to restore pride and claim a first win against England in six years.